Howard University, an HBCU and one recipient of Mellon’s Just Futures funding initiative. Photo: Eric Glenn/shutterstock
Howard University, an HBCU and one recipient of Mellon’s Just Futures funding initiative. Photo: Eric Glenn/shutterstock

According to Candid, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was the second largest higher education funder from 2014–2018, giving a total of $793 million. Only the Gates Foundation gave more—$1.5 billion. With an endowment just north of $6 billion, Mellon has also been a prominent thought leader in the field, leading the way on issues including support for community colleges and boosting faculty diversity.

So when Mellon announced last June that it was adjusting its mission to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking, we sat up and took notice.

“At Mellon, we believe in the power of the humanities and the arts to facilitate a deeper understanding of the richness of human experience,” said foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “Now, we urgently ask the question, ‘What does it mean to pursue social justice through the humanities and the arts?’” To address that question, the foundation announced it would divide its grantmaking into four program areas: higher learning, public knowledge, arts and culture, and humanities.

Less than two months later, the foundation named Philip Brian Harper, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, as director of its Higher Learning program and tasked him with expanding access to the humanities and liberal arts while implementing a new strategic direction focused specifically on social justice and equity.

Harper told me the program “has sharpened its social justice focus” over the past year, supporting what he calls an “inclusive humanities education and diverse learning environments—spaces where the ideas that enrich our understanding of a complex world are created and elevated.”

Higher Learning is now dedicated to “creating broader access to humanities higher learning opportunities, supporting undergraduate and graduate humanities education that builds on and centers more complete and accurate narratives, elevating the ideas and knowledge that help inspire and illuminate our shared human experience; and accelerating the demographic transformation of the academy across the U.S.—including the faculty and institutional leaders—to better reflect the population.”

We’ll take a look at where the program is headed in a moment. But first, let’s explore the four grantmaking strategies that Mellon’s using to cultivate an inclusive humanities education.

Expanding access to higher learning

Access is what Harper called “a driving value” for Mellon’s Community College-University Partnerships initiative, which aims to ease humanities students’ transfer pathway from community colleges to universities. Access is also key to Mellon’s Higher Education in Prison initiative, which supports degree-granting programs for current and formerly incarcerated students.

“Generally, we aim to support students from groups that have historically been underserved by the higher ed system,” Harper told me. “And we often work to accomplish this through programs that center collaborative research or community-engaged study and scholarship.” Mellon’s work aligns with the work of other higher ed funders that prioritized student access and support before the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 has further amplified those concerns. In March, the National College Attainment Network reported that applications for federal financial aid were down 9% compared to the same time in 2020, suggesting that poor and working-class students are taking a wait-and-see approach regarding their college aspirations.

“I’m really worried that those students won’t come back at all, or they might come back much later,” said Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for research at the American Council on Education.

Building on accurate narratives

In the interest of promoting more accurate narratives within humanities pedagogy, Mellon’s Higher Learning program has supported what Harper called “the recovery and publicization of the suppressed place-based histories of marginalized people” in addition to developing fields like African American studies and studies of African diasporic cultures at specific institutions.

In January, Mellon awarded more than $72 million through its Just Futures Initiative to examine how the study of past racial inequality can inform social transformation. One recipient, an initiative at the University of Wisconsin called “Humanities Education for Anti-racism Literacy in the Sciences and Medicine,” aims to center the educational experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students to build more accurate narratives about histories of racism in the sciences and medicine, as well as to better understand persistent underrepresentation and develop tools for building a more equitable university and society.

Harper told me that these kinds of projects “contribute to the elevation of ideas and knowledge entailed by several other initiatives,” including mission-relevant dissertations and postdoctoral fellowship programs administered by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.

In related analysis, check out our take on Mellon’s Monuments Project, a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment that will support efforts to recalibrate what it calls “the assumed center of our national narratives” to include those who have often been denied historical recognition.

Illuminating shared human experience

In 2020, Mellon’s Higher Learning program conducted two new calls for proposals that illuminate what the foundation calls “our shared human experience”—the Just Futures Initiative and the Future of Higher Learning in Prison open call. The program plans to issue additional calls for proposals in the coming years.

Harper said the program has also refined its proposal invitations for several other offerings to reflect its newly refined funding priorities. Examples include Mellon’s Sawyer Seminars, which support comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments, and its New Directions Fellowships, which assist humanities faculty members seeking training outside their own areas of special interest.

Accelerating the academy’s demographic transformation

For Mellon, boosting diversity across American colleges and universities had been a top priority long before last year’s strategic shift. In 2018, Diversity Program Officer Armando Bengochea laid out the foundation’s thinking, arguing that funders must methodically cultivate students in a way that eases them toward a path of post-graduate employment.

Following the foundation’s 2020 pivot, Harper said that Mellon’s Higher Learning program has “rededicated itself to ensuring that the U.S. professoriate and academic leadership represent as fully as possible the broad constituencies they serve—both in social-demographic and, where applicable, academic-disciplinary terms.”

The program remains committed to increasing the number of students of color who pursue humanities doctoral work and join faculty ranks, the number of men of color and women and nonbinary people of all races among top-level academic leadership, and the number of humanities scholars serving as provosts and presidents at the nation’s research universities.

In addition to individual grants to institutions, Harper said this work includes standing support for Higher Learning’s flagship initiative toward redressing underrepresentation in the professoriate, the 32-year-old Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which, by 2020, had seen nearly 1,000 students through completion of their Ph.D., with hundreds of fellows in tenured, tenure-track, post-doctoral and other teaching and research positions throughout the United States.

What’s next

Going forward, Harper said Mellon’s Higher Learning program will “accelerate a more deliberate distribution of resources to expand access and redress inequities throughout the system of higher education.” The program’s key priorities—building diverse student bodies and faculties, nurturing a diverse cadre of inspired institutional leaders, supporting the creation of inclusive narratives, and generating new knowledge—will remain central to this work.

“Close attention is paid to the intellectual work of programs, scholars and departments that foreground those efforts,” Harper said. “The foundation understands this work as necessary to support a healthy democracy and a just society that gives voice to an ever-widening breadth of narratives about American self-understanding.”

Harper also shared with me several grantmakers he believes are making a meaningful difference in the higher ed space. They include breakthrough HBCU donor MacKenzie Scott; the Luce Foundation, a partner to Mellon’s Higher Learning program; the Ford Foundation and its Ford Fellows program; the Sloan Foundation, the Jack Cooke Kent Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.